Durham, New Hampshire -- Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson joked on Wednesday about taunting cops "back in the day, before they would shoot you," comments that drew laughter from his audience at the University of New Hampshire but widespread criticism online.
Talking about his childhood in Detroit, Carson told the crowd about the trouble he'd make with friends, "throwing rocks at cars," which he joked "everybody did … because it was so much fun." With a good-natured smile, he described how the drivers would chase him "and we would run slowly to encourage them — and just when they were nearby, we were gone like a flash."
When cops came, "always in unmarked cars, they'd be chasing us across the field and they would think they trapped us" at 10-feet-tall fences, Carson said.
But the cops "had no idea how adept we were at getting over those fences," Carson joked with a smile, describing how he and his friends would leap over the fences in a single bound "and laugh at them because they couldn't do that."
"That was back in the day before they would shoot you," Carson added, pausing for a beat before chuckling heartily and adding, "I'm just kidding, you know they wouldn't do that."
Carson used the joke to segue into an expression of support for police officers and a plea for unity and respect for all, even those with whom you don't agree.
"I really have a tremendous amount of respect for the police because they put their lives on the line every day for us, and they are the very last people that we should be targeting," he said.
Carson acknowledged there are some police officers who "perhaps are rotten," just like some university professors, doctors, plumbers and "a lot" of people in the media.
"But you know what, that doesn't mean that we go out and try to eliminate them. We don't go out and try to kill them, we need in this society to really grow up and stop allowing ourselves to be divided," he said.
Carson has made similar comments before in response to incidents of police using force against African-Americans, calling for police to be "taught to be respectful of everybody," but emphasizing the need to "make sure respect is offered in both directions."
But his stance as the only African American candidate in the entire presidential field, Democratic or Republican, has brought added pressure on him to address issues of race and biased policing practices — a pressure Carson has resisted. He typically emphasizes the need for the African-American community to take responsibility for the challenges they face. He emphasizes education in particular as a way to help improve conditions for minorities.